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Friends to Become Foes for a Day at Wimbledon

July 03, 1995|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WIMBLEDON, England — Friends who meet at work don't often have this problem. Best friends Lindsay Davenport and Mary Joe Fernandez will go to their office today and each will make a concerted effort to eliminate the other one from the most important tennis tournament in the world.

Davenport, Wimbledon's seventh-seeded woman, and Fernandez, No. 13, came off their separate courts at almost the same time on Saturday and found each other in the locker room. They discovered they both had won their matches and advanced to the round of 16, against each other.

"It's definitely going to be weird," Davenport said. "She's my best friend and she's been like a sister to me over the last year. I always stay with her and her family--they are like my parents. So, it's definitely going to be very weird.

"But, on the plus side, if I lose, then she's in the quarterfinals. But you know, I'm going to make it."

Davenport, who lives in Newport Beach, and Fernandez, who lives in Miami, have a friendship that is rare on the women's tour--they are two of the most popular players and least competitive off the court. They confide in each other and are friendly to everyone.

"It's tough in tennis because no one wants anyone to know them, for fear they might find out a weakness or something and use it against them," Fernandez said. "Lindsay and I can be friends and also professionals. It's nice to have someone to talk to."

The two may find a common interest in their lack of pretension and insistence on leading "normal" lives. Fernandez is often referred to as being "too nice," although she's a keen competitor. Likewise, Davenport has chosen to make life her No. 1 priority.

"Tennis isn't No. 1 for me," she said. "I enjoy playing and I enjoy winning, but I'm not at the point where I want kill myself to win. I may change my philosophy. But for now, I have other things I want to do and also play tennis. I don't want to be the kind of person who doesn't know anything about the world other than tennis. It's just a game."

The two are different in other ways. Fernandez, 23, is friendly but quiet and an introvert. Davenport, 19, is gregarious and extroverted. Fernandez is the sort of player who never goes sightseeing when she travels, preferring to stay off her feet and rest. Davenport is a voracious tourist.

An incident at last year's French Open illustrates the difference.

"It was midnight and I was on the Champs Elysee with Harold [Solomon, Fernandez's coach]. We went into a Burger King," she said. "We sat down and a few minutes later I looked up and there was Lindsay. She had been out sightseeing all day. She was really excited.

"I looked down and she was wearing some kind of white Keds, little sneakers. Both her feet were bloody. The shoes were red. She had blisters and had just kept walking.

"I said, 'You're crazy. Your feet are all torn up.' Lindsay didn't care. She loves to sightsee, she says, 'I've got to see everything.' She played the next day and got to the finals in doubles."

Fernandez was a role model of sorts for Davenport. Ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, Fernandez has been on the tennis scene since 1985 and can give Davenport the benefit of her experience as one of the best American players.

Fernandez is a model in another way. As Davenport did years later, Fernandez chose to go to high school--she was a straight-A student--and graduate, before spending full time on the tour.

"Yes, I guess we're both normal in that way," Fernandez said. "Our families are similar, very close. Both Lindsay and I have other interests outside of tennis."

Fernandez said she thought Davenport was doing a good job in handling the pressure of being the No. 1 American woman. The expectations that go with the ranking are often unwelcome.

" I think you have times when you don't like it and say, 'Why?' " Davenport said. "There's just so much stuff you have to deal with. It's quite depressing and even if you can handle it, it's very tough to put up a front that it's fine and it's easy. But I really enjoy playing and I enjoy the atmosphere and I enjoy the people--that's what I try to remember when things are going bad."

Things were terribly bad earlier this year, when Davenport contracted pneumonia from Fernandez while with her family during the Lipton Championships in March. Both players were off the tour for several weeks.

Their match today is the first time Fernandez and Davenport have played each other in more than a year. Their lifetime head-to-head is only 1-1.

"We had several chances where we might have played each other this year, but one of us always lost," Fernandez said.

Davenport is playing well since coming back from her illness, but advances through tournaments almost unnoticed.

"I know I can play well and I'm underestimated some of the time," Davenport said. "I'm not completely helpless out there. I have a little bit of feel and anticipation. My problem is the first two steps, but then I move fine. But definitely the first two steps are not my strong point."

In Wimbledon's first week, unkind and often sophomoric references have been made in the London tabloids. But the reception was nothing like last year's cruel attacks. At 6 feet 3, Davenport offers a large target.

During a recent news conference, Davenport seemed grateful that someone suggested that she's just built differently than other players on the tour.

"I'm never going to be Steffi Graf or Gabriela Sabatini," Davenport said. "I have a different body type, but I can get faster, I know that, and I can probably work on getting into a little better shape. But not everyone is built like Steffi."

Fernandez empathizes with Davenport's situation. She has been criticized for being too skinny and not strong enough. She knows Davenport's sensitivity and how much the comments can hurt.

"It bothers me," Fernandez said. "Some people speak out of turn. Lindsay doesn't need to defend herself. She's No. 7 in the world. That's not bad."

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